Sunday, 23 June 2019

Brightburn



Tyger Tyger

Brightburn
USA 2019 Directed by David Yarovesky
UK cinema release print (brutalised by collusion with the BBFC).


Brightburn is a movie produced by James Gunn, written by his brother and cousin - Brian and Mark Gunn - and directed somewhat brilliantly by David Yarovesky. The film takes place in the fictional town of Brightburn in Kansas and it’s clear that the location is this story’s Smallville. This is one of those 'superhero goes wrong' stories (like Chronicle, reviewed here) but it’s a concept which hasn’t been done too often on film... although, to be fair, it’s probably been done to death in various books and comics over the decades.

This one, in fact, is not afraid to wear it’s influences on its sleeve and there are many references in origin and similarity to the famous DC comic book character Superman. This is because the movie makers really don’t want you to forget this here... it’s what the film is really about. In fact, this is almost, in some ways and in all but copyright evading names, characters and situations only, a typical example of a DC Elseworlds comic book writ large on the big screen. To further extend that analogy, this time in a Marvel comics concept, it’s a What If...? story. Except the premise here, as you will no doubt know from the iconography of the crashed spaceship with it’s infant cargo landing in Kansas in the trailer, is... “What If Superman Had Crashed On Earth As An Infant But, Instead Of Choosing To Use His Alien Powers For Good, He Goes Psychotic At The Age Of Twelve And Uses Those Powers To Kill People In Fairly Unpleasant Ways”. Except, you know, Brightburn is a lot shorter title and really works a whole lot better, I suspect.

Now, this is very clichéd, to be sure. All the set ups within the plot such as the main antagonist’s personal Kryptonite (nicely saved to a point where it becomes tenuous as a weapon by the end of the movie) and the way the central antagonist, young Brandon Breyer (played with an impressively sinister demeanour by child actor Jackson A. Dunn), is shaped by negative experiences at school and also the influence of the remnants of his alien heritage reprogramming him... are easy to spot coming a mile off. Both Elizabeth Banks and David Denman as his parents, Tori and Kyle, are equally impressive as two individuals who want to do right by their son and fail to see him, at first, as the psychopathic alien monster he has become. Everything falls into place nicely but...

... but it is still very clichéd and there aren’t any real surprises. But here’s the thing with that... Brightburn is still a very interesting and completely entertaining film and, since it’s one of the first to really get to grips with this on the big screen (and especially within an almost strict Superman template)... it really does need to be clichéd and play to those expectations to keep the audience interested in the characters. To keep the audience in suspense. Which it does, in no uncertain terms.

One of the director’s ways of doing this was, it seemed to me, a little odd. In that, he takes an overtly voyeuristic stance. He’ll go from an establishing shot and either cut or move the camera to take you in further to pull you into a scene but... and here’s the thing... he does it a lot and, sometimes, even within a scene that already playing out. So he’ll cut away from the mother, say, to bring the camera back from another, distant vantage point... and then slowly pull you back to her again. Normally this might be a little distracting but the way he manages to pull it off here, without really popping the audience out of the action... indeed, using this technique to draw them in further... is very well executed and I’m wondering now if this particular way of shooting around a scene, which gives the camera a very distant, fly on the wall kind of voyeuristic atmosphere, is something this particular director does in every film he works on.

Also, there’s a lot of cross-cutting between two separate scenes in this, almost too much... and he uses this to accomplish two things. One is the obvious thing where he uses two adjacent sets of events to make a visual metaphor about some subtext of the film but, the other thing he does with this... and I guess it’s kind of a traditional thing to use this way of editing things together but it really works well here... is to build suspense when you don’t know just how close the lethal boy is to walking/flying into the other sequence and letting loose his child-like wrath.

Talking of which, when he does let loose said wrath, it gets pretty grim and disturbing. Now I knew before I went to see this that the film has been edited for violence in two places by the film company in collusion with the accursed BBFC in order to get it a lower, 15 rating. Normally I would just boycott the film accordingly but, like Aquaman before it, I was very interested in seeing this so, in those kinds of instances, my cinema trip basically becomes a window shopping trip. I know I’m not really watching the film but I can see roughly what it looks like so, when the US edition of the Blu Ray comes out, which will be an uncut version, I can just import it over and have that version instead (and probably before it even gets released in this country, I suspect). So yeah... definitely one of my ‘try first’ before buying the real deal trips and, in regards to this film, yeah I’ll definitely be grabbing a US edition of the film at some point.

Now I’ve got that out of the way.... even with those two cuts here, the film is still truly gory and violent. It’s not just the normal grimness you get when you see a young, sinister kid committing murders... these are elements of goriness which are especially graphic with human flesh and bone mangled into something it’s not supposed to be on characters who, more often than not, don’t die quickly. Now some of those set pieces you will see coming... every kid has wondered just what Superman could do with his heat vision if made angry... others you won’t, especially in terms of lingering on the violence and playing with it once the initial physical assault is committed. There’s a lot of bloody demise here so I’m truly interested in seeing what the BBFC suggested the company removed. Time and heinous US postal fees will tell soon enough, I guess.

So, yeah... really not much to say in criticism of Brightburn, to be honest. At least not in terms of negative criticism. The audience I saw it with were on the edge of their seat and I thought this was a perfectly good attempt at making a horror movie which is, in all the obvious ways, an anti-superhero movie. A super-villain movie, I guess... in a year where we’ve already had Glass (reviewed here) and with a Joker movie soon upon us. If you’ve seen the trailer for Brightburn and liked what you saw... well, this does exactly what it says on the tin but in a way which doesn’t run out of steam and is not overly long. An easy recommendation from me for fans of both horror and superhero movies. I’m hoping we’ll get some kind of well made sequel to this one at some point in the future. I can see how this could be expanded in a few directions.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Double Life



Hold Miklós

Double Life -
The Autobiography
Of Miklós Rózsa

by Miklós Rózsa
The Baton Press ISBN: 0859361411


Miklós Rózsa is, or rather was, one of the great film music composers of Hollywood from the 1940s through to the 1980s. He was much loved by the studio system the older he got and, by the time he moved over to MGM studios and signed a contract with them, he was pretty much allowed the pick of most MGM scores he wanted... or at least that’s what I’ve heard in the past. Rózsa tells it slightly differently here in terms of receiving projects in a more hap hazard manner but, either way, his music is always brilliant and stands alone as great composition.

For me personally, while I love the scores I’ve heard by him over the years, I have to say that he’s not a composer whose style really changes as time goes by but, since the style of the movies most certainly did, he does seem to be better serving the needs of the films he wrote for on the scores he penned back in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and even some of 70s as opposed to, say, the late 70s and 80s. What I mean by that is that, while I love his later scores such as Time After Time and Last Embrace, these just look to me like 1980s films over-scored with 1940s style music. I know many would disagree with me (and one or two of the directors of these movies themselves would certainly disagree outright with that sentiment) but that’s just the way I see/hear it. That being said, he is a fantastic composer... who can forget his scores for great movies like Salvador Dali and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound or William Wyler’s Ben Hur. 

Double Life, his autobiography, is something I’ve wanted to read for many years but I’ve only just gotten around to it, thanks to finding a very cheap, second hand copy at The Cinema Museum* for the princely sum of £3.50. In this, Rózsa at the very end of his career divides the chapters of his life first into locations and, when he finally gets to America due to having to finish Korda’s famous The Thief Of Baghdad in Hollywood, it’s split into tenures at studios and so on. I’d just assumed he’d named his autobiography after his famous score to Double indemnity but, in actual fact, it derives from a film he scored called Double Life and he uses it here as a metaphor for his own double life, by which he means the two kinds of musical artist he was. So, the scores he wrote for films for the studios versus the concertos, symphonies etc that he wrote purely as musical entitles in their own right, for concert performance. This book gives a healthy balance of both and, at one point when his contract with MGM was about to expire, details the lengths he went to in order to achieve a high standard of writing for both projects.

And it’s a book chock full of little sketches of people and situations as he journey’s through his life, mostly in chronological order with the odd flash-forward or flash-back to add an appropriate commentary about something else he’s talking about. So you have things like his chance encounter with a ‘growing in popularity’ Adolf Hitler in Paris and his disbelief at how the rest of the world were just not catching on to just where that was heading when, in the places he was passing through, it was being made pretty obvious that invasion and war would soon be coming. My favourite story here is when he gets to London in the 1930s and he immediately sees a newspaper headline reading, “Great Britain Under Attack”, which promptly scares him and gives him visions of having to flea our fair isle when he’s only just arrived. He hastily bought a copy of the newspaper and read it from cover to cover, expecting the worst (which was to come but... not before he was already living in Hollywood) and then found, finally, that the headline was talking about the cricket scores. This has got to be a good demonstration of just how ‘British’ our country is and I love this... it’s just so typical, even today, of my snoozy country’s mindset.

Rózsa made the decision to try and pursue a career in films because, although a very successful and critically recognised composer, you just couldn’t make any money from composing for the concert hall. A little anecdote he tells of his time in France is very pertinent to the sentiments I see expressed almost every week on Twitter in regards to working in the arts and it’s when he asked what a composition of his would pay out for him. He was told that... “In Paris, you do it for publicity!” His response? “Well publicity is fine but it is difficult to buy groceries with it.”

The book also tells of his friendship with the famous movie making family of the Kordas, of course and how he went with them to America to finish up on The Thief Of Baghdad and ended up staying there for over 40 years. It also details some of the political intrigue and things he was asked to do or, in some cases, ways in which he pulled the wool over certain studio staff’s eyes in order to get results. Such as the way he ousted Strauss as the composer for The Thief Of Baghdad and the way he fooled William Wyler to keep the music he’d written for the famous ‘rowing speed’ scene in Ben Hur by letting him reject it and then reintroducing it as it was later in exactly the same levels and mix which, he was told, was much better.

One of his pet hates, it seems, is the use of the term ‘main titles’. This is because, as he says, it harkens back to silent movies when the opening credits and titles weren’t the only titles (or inter-titles) throughout the film and are a completely meaningless thing today. Something I’d not thought of before but I’m happy to be educated by one of the best. Another thing I learned of was his absolute dislike of the click track on a film (which is a device used in Hollywood to help composers keep time with the events of a scene) and he only ever had to use one on the odd occasion for certain scenes. He declared it a mechanical device and, therefore, anti-musical.

In fact, my biggest surprise when reading this was that... Rózsa just wasn’t into films. He sought them out to try and put bread on the table and he liked some of them and had good words to say about a few of the projects he got involved in. Most of them, though, it seems he didn’t have a great deal of respect for, including many of the ones he personally scored but, similar to more or less the same sentiment I’ve heard expressed by Bernard Herrmann on one occasion, he never did anything but his musical best for them... so at least I can take comfort to the fact that he wasn’t ‘writing down’ for his pictures. Instead, he was doing what every other score composer does, I guess... try to elevate them and make them better.

Similarly, he doesn’t have a lot of good things to say about most of the Hollywood composers of the time although, he’s always quite discreet in that he often doesn’t name names. He does, however, mention some of his film composing friends who he did have a lot of respect for so... he talks about André Previn and there’s a very typical Bernard Herrmann story in there. He also says a lot of good things about the musical writing talent Frank Skinner, who is probably not best known for writing scores to A list pictures but, frankly, is another score composer I love and I was genuinely surprised that someone like Rózsa appreciated him so much.

So there you have it... Double Life is a charmingly written autobiography, which is nothing if not polite but also very witty and conjures up a man who wasn’t afraid to tell the odd studio executive off and who carved a niche writing some very distinctive periods of styles of film music in his career (Noir, Epic etc.). He seems somewhat shy about writing of his personal life in Hollywood and you won’t hear too much, if anything, of his wife and children and although he mentions the music from The Killers being ‘acquired’, shall we say, for the TV show Dragnet, he doesn’t mention his successful law suit against it or say much of anything about certain types of problems in his life. This is not a kiss and tell book... but it does give some idea of what it was like in different countries in certain decades and, at the very least, its invaluable for this stuff. I thought it was a great read and anyone interested in both film music and any other kind of musical composition could do a lot worse than get their hands on a copy of this book and read it cover to cover. I’m glad I did and I’m not even a musician.

*Details of further stalls, screenings and events can be found at the Cinema Museum’s website here.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Stan And Ollie



Lorra Laurel Laughs

Stan And Ollie
UK/Canada/USA 2018
Directed by Jon S. Baird
Entertainment One
Blu Ray Zone B


I skipped Stan And Ollie when it came out in cinemas... primarily because I knew I’d probably end up watching it with my dad on Father’s Day and I wasn’t so sure it would be any good, or at least not good enough to sit through a second time. As it happens, now that I’ve done exactly that on Father’s Day, I have to say that this is a beautiful movie, both in content and on a technical level too.

The film hasn’t made a huge amount of money given its budget but it has more than doubled it on worldwide box office and so, honestly, the film has not done that badly. It could... and certainly should... have made considerably more but I can understand why fans of both Mr. Stan Laurel and Mr. Oliver Norvell Hardy would be somewhat horrified that anyone would try and catch their particular brand of lightning in a bottle these days. Also, I’m pretty sure that not enough kids nowadays know about this dynamic, comedy duo who made a gazillion silent movie shorts followed by about another gazillion talkies (and the odd feature film), many of which were remakes of those early shorts, if memory serves.

When I was a kid, Laurel And Hardy shorts were playing on TV pretty much all the time throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. It was almost impossible not to catch at least one Stan And Ollie movie a week and, frankly, that was no bad thing. Everybody loved them. They were as much a fixture of daytime/early evening TV as the abundantly aired Tom And Jerry cartoons which also seemed to have disappeared from our screens around about the same time. And that’s what happened to Laurel And Hardy... they disappeared and suddenly stopped being broadcast due, I believe, to complicated legal wrangling about who owned the rights to the transmission of their films and it’s been only up until recently that they’ve started to be televised again. Alas, modern TV is not the beast it used to be and rather than be bombarded with these wonderful little films like I was when I was growing up, you have to go out of your way to look for these now and get lucky if you want to see one... although there is still the wonderful world of physical media such as DVD and Blu Ray if you want to do them right.

So most of the intervening generations between the 1980s until now just wouldn’t have had too much of an opportunity to be exposed to their films and I suspect this sad fact also played a role in the box office performance of this movie (although personally I think more than doubling your money is more than enough of a good thing).

The film had me right from the opening, it has to be said, with a beautifully designed shot after the opening credits which starts out as a static composition of Laurel and Hardy on the two sides of the screen in front of their make up mirrors during the making of Way Out West, with a void of dead area at the centre of the screen. As the two converse with their backs to the camera, we can see each of their faces reflected in their mirrors talking across the screen from each other. It’s a dazzling shot set up which completely threw me off listening to the content of their conversation at this point but then the shot doesn’t remain static, as the two get up and walk out of their dressing room... and then out and then back in through a studio for a long tracking shot as the conversation keeps going. It’s a gorgeous opening and it all just works really well because... not only is it technically brilliant and more than easy on the eye... it’s also wonderfully performed by the two actors. I’ll get to the performances in a little while.

The film then, after Stan has a brief run in with Hal Wallis (played by Danny Huston), who kind of put the two together in the first place and produced their films, shows us a little of the making of the film’s famous dance scene and then gets a little darker as Stan’s contract runs out and he tries to get Ollie to break his contract and come over to 20th Century Fox with him.

The story then jumps the 1950s and the rest of the movie concerns the two’s originally shaky but ultimately successful triumph on their last theatrical tour of the British Isles, before ill health forces Oliver Hardy to retire, a few years before his death.

The beauty of that first shot is built on throughout the course of the film and there are certain echoes in other shots as the director sets up a few things where reflected surfaces feature heavily in the way you watch the two interact, from time to time. It’s almost voyeuristic in the way it sometimes uses reflection as a distancing device but the ultimate expression of the strong sense of ‘fly on the wall’ effect you get here is in one of the last scenes in the movie, where Stan and Ollie are once again re-enacting the little dance they performed at the start of the film on the stage in Ireland. The director brilliantly keeps panning back from their feet to dwell on the shadows of these two projected behind them before coming back to them and then doing this a few times. It’s amazing how much tension this creates in the movie because, each time the camera slides back to the dancing silhouettes, you feel like this could be the moment Oliver Hardy takes a fall and it would be just too horrible to watch as anything but the visual metaphor of a projected shadow. As it happens, things don’t play out exactly the way I thought they would but, obviously, I’m not going to spoil that experience for you with this review.

So let’s get to those all important performances...

I’m not exactly the biggest fan of Steve Coogan so consider me doubly impressed with his performance here. Yeah, everybody will say it’s easy to ‘do Stan’ but it’s really not going to be as easy as people think. Coogan looks, sounds and acts so much like the real Stan Laurel that it’s almost impossible to tell them apart. This way of giving the ‘real life’ Stan characteristics which he may or may not have had in real life but certainly had in his on screen characterisations (so probably did, I guess) pays dividends when we get to the actual drama and dark sections of the picture. He’s as believable as you could ever hope for and the same can also be said of the great John C. Reilly. Reilly is always watchable but here he’s also unrecognisable as himself and there’s very little you could latch on to, to try and distinguish him from Oliver Hardy. He’s played absolutely perfectly here by Reilly. Well... wait... my dad did make the comment that he couldn’t look at the camera and treat it like an intimate friend in quite the same way as Oliver Hardy could but, frankly, it’s more than good enough for me to complete the illusion and nobody is ever going to get these things 100% right... that would be impossible.

So yeah, these performances are tip top, as are the more caricature-like cameo performances of past actors such as James Finlayson and Harry Langdon. However, let’s not stop there because, although there’s not much to compare them to, the wives of Laurel and Hardy are equally impressive, with the always wonderful Shirley Henderson playing Mrs. Hardy and the equally enthralling Nina Arianda as Mrs. Laurel. Frankly, it would have been easy for either or both of these two characters to be upstaged by Coogan and Reilly here, given the nature of their performances but... these two do a fantastic job of portraying two wives who don’t really get on that well but who are an absolute rock for their respective husbands. There are so many good acting turns in this movie but these two are definitely two of the best.

The film also has a pretty nice score by Rolfe Kent which does some interesting things. I wasn’t sure about it first as, although the main Laurel and Hardy music that everyone associates with the two characters (The Cuckoo Song) is used only sparingly throughout the film and, pretty much, only as source (or diegetic) music, Kent goes off on a different tack. However, it’s pretty good and what he seems to be doing... and I’m not great at analysing music or expressing it in words so go easy on me here if I’m saying this the wrong way... but he takes the base rhythm of the famous music in a much understated orchestration and weaves that into the fabric of the score to give it a lighter touch than you would expect but, as it happens, it works beautifully and is never heavy handed or inappropriate throughout the film.

So yeah... that’s me done with the Stan And Ollie biopic and, frankly, it’s a great one. Fans of Laurel and Hardy should definitely brave this one, I think, as it’s never once disrespectful of the great men being portrayed and performances, sets, lighting, editing, music and cinematography all come together to compliment each other nicely here. Definitely one for all the family and a very moving film too, as it happens. A wonderful job here by everyone involved.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Men In Black International



Women’s MIB

Men In Black International
USA 2019 Directed by F. Gary Gray
UK cinema release print.


Well now, Men In Black International is a surprisingly better sequel than anyone had a right to expect from this franchise, I think.

The Men In Black films, based loosely on the comic book mini series by Lowell Cunningham, are usually not great films but neither are they ever in any way terrible. They’re fun, entertaining pieces which usually just about manage to rise above the level of mediocrity, truth be told and they do so with a certain amount of style... even if they don’t always make perfect sense or maintain their own continuity.

And this new spin off/continuation of the franchise pretty much falls under that same category, it has to be said. Well... except it makes a little more sense now than the first one (in light of the events of the third film) at any rate. Also, instead of going ahead with the two leads of the previous movie, this one gives us a new partnership and, it’s a pretty shrewdly cast one too. Both Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson have been imported over from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, hot from their on-screen partnership as Thor and Valkyrie as seen in Thor: Ragnarok (reviewed here) and Avengers: End Game (reviewed here).

Once again, the two prove to have good chemistry, with Hemsworth basically importing over the version of Thor from the later MCU films and Thompson playing it slightly differently but, again, making the perfect straight man... err... straight gal for Hemsworth’s charmingly imbecilic shenanigans and, more often than not, coming to the rescue when he gets himself in trouble. Which he frequently does.

Actually, it’s a very positive role for Thompson because, right from the start, she’s not only playing a strong woman but also a very smart one and, frankly, her character is a good example of a lady in a genre movie working her way to the top honestly with a nice combination of brains and tenacity. Although, with Emma Thompson reprising her role as the new head of the MIB organisation, we also have to suffer the inevitable and mostly necessary questioning of the gender bias of the film’s title but, you know, after a few references and even a ‘me too’ reference if I’m remembering things correctly, it doesn’t push the whole gender agenda in your face and manages to keep an equal balance exploring these issues without turning the film into some kind of catalyst for a preachy subtext so, yeah, all for it.

So this is a totally different Men In Black here... the London branch, in fact, with Liam Neeson in charge of the UK side of things and some nice little ideas thrown into the mix. It’s also a little more globe hopping than the previous films and this gives Danny Elfman and his co-composer Chris Bacon some more scope for different orchestrations on the scoring front. I’m not sure how much of Elfman is in this score (aside from the obvious use of his main Men In Black theme) but I seem to remember in an interview around the time of the second movie that he was kinda implying that he was just doing it by the numbers and so I suspect there’s a lot more of the always excellent Chris Bacon in here than I might at first have suspected. I think this one is getting a CD release at some point soon so hopefully I’ll be able to give it a listen away from the film.

It’s nicely put together and there’s some real good comedy moments from the leads and supporting cast... including a surprisingly interesting character played by Rafe Spall, who actually gets a chance to progress considerably in the story, considering his short amount of screen time scattered throughout the film. The film is not without one problem however...

Although the story is a lot simpler maybe than the previous films, which is not necessarily a bad thing, it does make the ability to surprise the audience a lot harder for the writers. Indeed, there’s a so called twist towards the end... two twists technically... which are only surprising in that the movie makers obviously thought we were supposed to not know this stuff already when, honestly, most people are going to figure out both these things about two of the characters within the first half an hour for sure. If you are going to go down that route... especially given the way the film is structured in the way it reveals and hides certain information... then maybe the story should be a little more convoluted to distract the audience from the obvious conclusions.

So, yeah, you’re not going to be surprised by anything in this movie but at least it’s fairly entertaining and that, pretty much, means it’s at least ‘on brand’. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel to this one with these same characters at some point but I don’t know how likely that is having seen some of the word of mouth on the film via Twitter. We shall see, I guess. After all, they’re making a sequel to the recent Tomb Raider film (reviewed here) and nobody I know liked that one other than me.

At the end of the day, Men In Black International is not the greatest film out there but it does rise to the occasion and give us something which is humourous and never boring. It’s possibly a little longer than it needs to be (some of the motor bike sequence, for example, could have been pruned down a bit) but it upholds the standards set by the previous movies and if you are a fan of those outside of just being hung up on whoever the main leads are, then this film should be right up your street. Definitely worth giving a look at if there’s nothing else you want to see at the cinema this week.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Goblin - Seven Notes In Red



Steep Bread

Goblin - Seven Notes In Red
by Fabio Capuzzo
Ajna Bound ISBN: 9780972182096


Goblin - Seven Notes In Red
was a very expensive book to import over from the United States and I’d just about given up trying to find a copy which didn’t have an unbelievably hefty post and packing charge. However, that’s when I found Norman Records in Leeds, who were shipping the book at a fraction of the postage and, although it admittedly took them around 6 months or more to get it, I am very grateful to them for managing to obtain this relatively rare (at least in the UK) edition of what is, pretty much, the only book about the famous band Goblin that is available and translated into the English language.

Okay so, it has to be said... grateful as I was to have finally acquired a copy, I was less than enthusiastic about the contents. I actually started reading this, admittedly weighty, tome last year and got to a point where I was so fatigued by the writing style that I actually took a break from it and returned to it this year. I don’t usually leave any book I start unfinished but, I have to admit, that’s the first time I’ve ever felt the need to take a break. So, yeah, it’s probably the most boring book on music I’ve ever had to read (so far) and that’s a shame because the band Goblin, known best for their scores for Italian genre films such as their work for Dario Argento on Profondo Rosso (Deep Red), Suspiria and, okay I’m going to call it even though they weren’t allowed to call themselves Goblin for this recording, Tenebrae.

Now, I don’t want to knock Fabio Capuzzo, the writer of this impressively thorough tome because, frankly, the amount of research that has gone into this book is incredible. Also, although I found his writing style incredibly dull, this might not actually be his fault because it was originally an Italian book and it’s clearly been translated into English. Now, I’ve had a lot of problems with things translated from Italian in the past... usually soundtrack CD liner notes... but this book doesn’t read much better than some of the slaughtered sentences one finds on a lot of those, it has to be said. There are a heck of a lot of ‘list sentences’ in the book where the author will reel off a list of things which a particular person or band has worked on and some of these, believe it or not, go on for over a page. And that’s just for a single sentence! This is coupled with the fact that the large majority of these are listing titles or films or albums or song titles in Italian... and the amount of unwieldy, long Italian names, really isn’t a good thing to get too bogged down with if you want the reader to continue the journey of the book, methinks.

Okay so, despite a writing style that makes you want to throw your hands up in despair (and drop the book and lose your place when you are doing so)... it’s actually a very, very detailed, at least in terms of facts about band line ups and collaborations, look at the band’s quite convoluted history. Goblin over the years is... very complicated. The figurehead I always have in my mind for Goblin is maestro Claudio Simonetti but he hasn’t always been part of the group, coming and going as much of the rest of the line up, which seems to have been in an almost constant fluid state since the band’s beginnings as Oliver and then Cherry Five. These personalities were constantly clashing and the friction between the band members saw a lot of moving to and from other bands in the crazy Goblin timeline. Put it this way, I thought their were now two separate versions of the band Goblin in rivalry with each other producing albums at the moment. I was wrong... there are currently four (at the time this book was updated and translated into English over a year ago) incarnations of the band out there at present... and I don’t think that includes Simonetti’s wonderful tribute band Daemonia or the ‘resurrected with a different line up’ group who have inherited the name Cherry Five. It’s confusing to say the least.

Fans of Argento and other Italian directors will find a little to get their teeth into here but there’s not so many of the kind of entertaining anecdotes about the directors or working on the scores to these things as you might expect. This book is more or less focused just on the music and each Goblin album mentioned includes a track by track critical take of the contents, followed by critical responses to any bonus tracks or remasters added by various record companies (more often than not, Cinevox) over the years. There’s also a fair but of criticism for Cinevox actually, which I wasn’t expecting since I’ve always thought they were quite good with getting Goblin albums out there. These track by track critiques can also be quite wearing, however... one wonders how many times one can read about a ‘slicing guitar’ before one gives up on the text for a while (well, not long as it turned out in my case... I had a long rest between starting and finishing this tome).

However, if you are heavily into Goblin, you will almost certainly find this an invaluable reference work and it also has a full, long and very detailed discography at the back of the book where every conceivable release from these band members is faithfully highlighted. The design of the book is fine with a lovely cover of various versions of the logos and a fair amount of pictures used to slice up sections of the text at various points on the interior of the book. I did catch one sentence where the leading had split the lines by being much greater but one case of a forgotten ‘soft return’ is not that big in the scheme of things and so this element of the book, at least, is well in order. As for the title... why is it that people who write about a specific subsection of Italian cinema seem to title their work with something which is very specifically from a completely different work. For example, Tim Lucas’ truly excellent tome on Mario Bava is called All The Colours Of The Dark... except All The Colours Of The Dark was a famous giallo directed by Sergio Martino, not Mario Bava. Similarly, I can only assume the title of this book, Seven Notes In Red, is a satire of the Lucio Fulci film title Seven Notes in Noir (or Seven Notes In Black aka The Psychic)... which didn’t have a soundtrack by Goblin at all so... you know... go figure.

At the end of the day, Goblin - Seven Notes In Red is pretty much a book for die hard Goblin fans only but, being as it’s the only game in town as far as book bound information about this group goes, you might want to keep this one handy on the shelf until any other works on the band come along.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Ma



Game, Vet and Matched

Ma
USA 2019 

Directed by Tate Taylor
UK cinema release print.


Warning: This review will contain some story spoilers. Read at your own risk or, you know, come back and read it after you saw the movie, perhaps?

So, Ma, is one of those movies that tries to do a few simple things at once and, mostly, succeeds at the majority of them on some level. It stars Octavia Spencer as the titular character, a veteranarian's assistant... and she puts in a good performance in a movie that is both trying to paint a character who is justified in becoming the twisted individual she has progressed to when we join her in the story and then give us a few lurid thrills over the course of the movie and in the end game... as Ma goes on a kind of roaring rampage of revenge, to quote a much loved movie.

Well, it’s certainly not a terrible film, for sure and I did kind of enjoy it because it rambles along at its own pace and it’s just intriguing enough to hold the attention while Spencer and a bunch of teenage kids, played by people like Diana Silvers and McKaley Miller start having alcohol fuelled parties in Ma’s basement. Silvers plays Maggie, who has moved into town with her mother Erica, played by Juliette Lewis, to start a new life and, within a day, is invited to join the local kids in their shenanigans and, after they are trying to get adults to buy their alcohol for them... have their first meeting with Ma who enters their lives and, ultimately, refuses to leave.

The film does the, perhaps obvious, thing where they set up just how Ma’s mental state can turn on a dime fairly early on in the proceedings, to keep the audience on edge... and then goes on cruise control for a while as it establishes the parents of the kids, including Luke Evans who was so great in Professor Marston And The Wonder Women (reviewed here) and starts weaving plot threads together with a series of flashbacks, not all of them linear in nature, to show the audience how connected things really are and why this chance meeting with Ma may not necessarily be as spontaneous as the various kids thought.

Okay so... it’s not breakneck but pacey without resorting to peril every five mins and it involves enough suspense in it, via the old cliché of “the forbidden area” of Ma’s home, to hold the interest. The performances are okay and, surprisingly for a film of this nature... and this is one thing it gets really right... you don’t completely hate the various teenagers who are put in peril. The usual way these movies work these days is to somehow have a bunch of teenage characters that only teenagers can relate to... thus rendering the empathy for the teen protagonists completely non existent and you’re usually cheering on the malevolent antagonist to get on with their work. Here, the kids are mostly quite sweet and so you do feel yourself getting at least a little pulled into their world and the threat that Ma brings to it.

It’s definitely a film which roots itself firmly in the thriller genre rather than horror... there’s no supernatural presence or inhuman monster to bring a sense of terror to the shenanigans... and sadly, it fails to be as potent in both the violence and the final reveal of the trigger from Ma’s past that’s made the switch in her head flip and set her on her ultimately murderous course.  By that I mean that when you realise that the flashbacks are building to a certain kind of denouement, what the audience can imagine happened is probably far worse and icky than what you ultimately see. Also, some of the things that Ma does to various teens in this world maybe loses the impact when you can see exactly the same kinds of things done as leisure activities on various dark porn sites on the internet. It’s not that some of the stuff isn’t nasty... it’s just that you do get a feel by the final sequences that this film is perhaps a little out of step with its time and that maybe, if the same film was released in the early 1960s, it would have been a much more potent and possibly influential film than it seems to be now.

That being said, there are some genuinely well executed jump scares in the movie and, as I said, it’s sufficiently entertaining to breeze its way through to the final set piece without getting dull for the paying customers. It’s the kind of thing that goes down well with teenage audiences and I can’t imagine it won't make its budget back fairly quickly, to be honest. That being said, if you are expecting a well oiled horror movie or even a competent teenage slasher movie... you may be a little disappointed with Ma. It’s not that it’s not well done but perhaps that’s part of the problem I had with it a little bit. It doesn’t have any kind of raw edge to it and, sometimes, a film of this nature can be a little too polished. All in all though, I thought the film was nice enough for a one off watch... charming even, so if you’ve got no other films at the cinema that you want to see, this one’s maybe worth a look. 

Sunday, 9 June 2019

X-Men - Dark Phoenix



50 Shades Of Jean Grey

X-Men - Dark Phoenix
USA 2019 Directed by Simon Kinberg
UK cinema release print.


Well, my credibility as a reviewer is tested again as I seem to be of a completely opposite opinion to the rest of the world about this movie. I can’t remember hearing as much negative word of mouth about a film as I have about X-Men Dark Phoenix and, I have to say, since the continuity of the X-Men series was completely destroyed early on in their run, I have found the series to be a bit hit and miss, to say the least. And news just came in that the box office on this one is a disaster so... yeah, I guess I’m a bit out of synch with people in general. This one, however, is one of the better entries in the film series as a whole as far as I’m concerned and, I have to say, I really wasn’t expecting that.

The film is yet another adaptation... and I use that word in a very loose sense here... of the Dark Phoenix story arc from the comics and the first time around they tried this with Marvel Girl (aka Jean Grey), was way back in the first real mis-step of the series... X- Men - The Last Stand. In that film, Jean Grey was played by the wonderful Famke Jansenn in what turned out to be... definitely not the super-group’s last stand. Here she’s played by Sophie Turner and, over the last few films, I’ve really got used to her in the role and here, where she has to carry big chunks of the plot as the film is literally centred around her and her ‘Dark Phoenix’ incarnation, she proves herself more than capable of carrying the movie.

And, like the title implies, it’s a dark film. Well... mostly. It maybe is a little too light at the end but there is the death of one of the major characters fairly early on in the movie (no, I’m not going to spoil it and say which one) and, although I was kinda hoping for a Blake’s Seven style bloodbath at the end here, it does lighten up a little on the aftermath. Also, this is definitely the last of the X-Men films as we have come to know them. In a final twist coming in hard from the real world, this part of the Marvel Universe owned by 20th Century Fox is now owned by Disney (who now own Fox) and so when the characters inevitably return, I expect they’ll be going for a completely different look and feel so they can dovetail them into the current Marvel Cinematic Universe so, yeah, end of an era.

What this also means is it doesn’t make good on the post credits sequence of the previous movie and nor does it have its own post credits tease. More annoyingly, perhaps, is that the developing plot line of Quicksilver being Magneto’s son without the father realising yet is never finished off. No resolutions on that front here so... it’s kind of a shame they didn’t sort this loose end out.

However, almost everything else about this movie... I liked. The strong cast of regulars supporting Sophie Turner such as James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult etc were all great... as was Jessica Chastain as the lead alien villain of the piece. The action set pieces were good and the story was a little smaller in its focus but there is still a sense of something huge at stake here... not just the future safety of the Earth but also the impact of the consequences of events here flipping public attitudes to mutant-kind back to those of non-acceptance and intolerance (something which I don’t think was credibly resolved at the close of this film, to be honest).

There are also some nice shot compositions and transitions too, including a nice moment where, after pulling a wooden chest out and revealing his Magneto helmet, Fassbender pulls it down onto his head as a way of showing the audience he’s coming out of retirement which then immediately cuts to a similar close up of McAvoy as Professor X pulling off his Cerebro helmet.

There’s also Hans Zimmer’s score which, even though I love this composer (see here for a review of one of his wonderful live shows), I was somewhat sceptical of. As it happens, he does a really good job here and I’m looking forward to grabbing the CD of this one as soon as it goes on sale (it’s rumoured there will be a proper CD release sometime after the stupid download and I hope this is the case here... although the company might have a change of heart after seeing the box office if we’re extra unlucky).

The special effects look pretty good too and even the Magneto stuff, which I sometimes find a bit rubbishy looking, was pretty amazing this time around.

On the downside, this film continues to throw continuity to the wind and, after the events we heard hinted at in Logan (reviewed here), totally fails to conform to them in this movie and has you wondering just who the heck is green lighting writing decisions such as these.

However, despite the odd grumble, I have to say that this is easily the best Marvel movie so far this year.... after the not too terrible Captain Marvel and the, well, way too terrible and disappointing Avengers Endgame. X-Men Dark Phoenix walks all over them, in my opinion and I am just breathing a sigh of relief that, even though it’s had its ups and downs, the franchise is definitely going out on a high note here... despite what other reviewers would have you believe. Will definitely be picking this one up on Blu Ray the week it comes out over here and, you never know, might go back and have another look at it at the cinema too (the IMAX 3D was quite good on this one, for a change). Definitely a darkish film, like a few of its predecessors (one might even say a Dark Grey film) but that’s definitely a strength and it looks like a solid entry into the franchise to me.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Assigned!



Time Pieces

Assigned!
The Unofficial and Unauthorised
Guide to Sapphire And Steel

by Richard Callaghan
Telos Publishing ISBN: 978-1-84583-869-0


I always feel a bit torn when I read an account of something which is labelled up as either unofficial or unauthorised or, as in this case, both. There’s usually a lack of occlusion implied by one or more of the creative forces behind a project and also there’s usually not an abundance of illustrative material to be found in these kinds of volumes... such is the case here, with the only picture content being that on the front cover. However, this is sometimes offset by the fact that uncomfortable or awkward issues about a production could be discussed which, more often than not, wouldn’t see the light of day in an authorised edition. And while there’s not a huge amount of controversy on show here, you do get the feeling that, in the few instances of people being consulted for the book, they are being completely truthful about the show which is the focus of this volume and so, yeah, this book is a fun and sometimes informative read.

Assigned! The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Sapphire And Steel is obviously a labour of love for Richard Callaghan who, like many of us of a certain age, remembers being fairly unsettled by this ‘family’ show as a kid. Sapphire And Steel was, if you don’t remember this remarkable series, probably the most terrifying programme on TV... perhaps more so because it was intended for family viewing and was broadcast at times which reflected that, rather than at times reserved for other shows of a scary nature, such as The Omega Factor or Hammer House Of Horror (reviewed here). It ran for three, very sporadic series (and got really screwed up and had to be partially repeated due to a big television strike during the run of one of the 'two story long' seasons). There were six serialised TV ‘assignments’ all told, two per series of varying episode counts and shown as two half hour episodes (with ads) of each assignment per week, sometime between 7 and 8pm on, I think, Tuesday and Thursday nights. And of course, each episode except the last one of each story would end on a cliffhanger (as did the last episode of the last assignment, in a way). I remember it was always the one show that the kids in the playground would talk about the next day.

Why? Because it could be truly terrifying and it was utterly inscrutable in terms of just what the show was really about and who, how and what the two lead characters, Sapphire And Steel, actually were. I mean, you got kind of an idea that they were some kind of ‘elements’, Sapphire played by ex-Avengers girl Joanna Lumley and Steel played by ex-Man From U.N.C.L.E agent, David McCallum... but the writing played with the mysteries of the characters without revealing too much and the enigmatic way in which the two lead stars played these roles ensured that... although we knew the enemy of the week was always ‘time’ in some kind of evil manifestation, breaking through into our world in a supernatural manner to try and do as much damage as possible... we really often didn’t have a flying fig of an idea just what the heck was going on from one episode to the next, other than the ending of each episode was more or less life threatening to at least one character.

The two ‘agents’ spoke to each other using telekinesis most of the time and usually only used their ‘outside voices’ when they wanted one of the human characters to hear what they were saying. They were mostly here to save the humans but, as the second story set on a disused railway station invaded by the spirits of those who died alone in world wars made brutally clear, they were not above sacrificing the odd person to stop time from breaking through and destroying everything. They also had other incredible powers... such as being able to inhabit pictures or, in Sapphire’s case, being able to take time back for a period for their own ends but, the scope, range and details of their particular talents, and the abilities of other elements who would sometimes enter a story to give them a hand, such as Lead or Silver, were often quite flexible and played close to the chest of the writers.

It always felt like there was an overall plan to the thing though so it comes as something of a surprise when revealed in this tome that creator P. J. Hammond, who wrote all but the fifth of the six serials, was kinda making it up as he went along and would like to be surprised as to what the characters would be getting up to next, without doing any planning out. Indeed, from the sound of it, episodes would start being filmed while later episodes were still being written and would often be rewritten on the set, often with he assistance of McCallum who was, like his co-star, very committed to the project.

The book is set up with an introduction followed by a big chapter dedicated to each assignment. Each chapter is split into smaller sections starting off with a very brief plot summary of the story before going into details about various cast members and production crew for that particular shooting block and picking out various bits of, often very interesting trivia, before finishing on a full blown critical look at the story in question. Which is as good a way as any to do it and it certainly is very informative here. In these sections the writer might, for example, explore how ahead of it’s time, say, the fourth story is (the one with the man with no face coming out of photographs), where it’s implied that the main supporting protagonist (that is, other than the title characters), is actually a sex worker and strong, independent woman. Not a combination of qualities shown in a positive light that you would normally expect to see at the height of 1970s family TV viewing.

As a bonus to the six original stories that writer Richard Callaghan puts under the microscope here, he also goes a bit further with some additional sections for a quick, critical look and summation of all the other media which the title characters have appeared in... which, for this show, is a very short list. So, yeah, he also looks at the original paperback novelisation of the first story (also written by P. J. Hammond), the Sapphire And Steel Annual (for readers in other countries, an Annual is a British tradition consisting of a thin hardbound book of themed strips, stories and other activities which would be released for different licensed TV and comic properties every Christmas), the comic strip stories that appeared in Look In magazine and the three series of Big Finish CD audio plays starring David Warner as Steel and Susannah Harker as Sapphire. These are also invaluable chapters and serve to whet the appetite somewhat, although it’s a shame that stuff like the Look In strips haven’t been collected together and reprinted in the intervening decades.

All in all, though, a very welcome visit to the facts and figures that made up what was one of the most enthralling and spooky shows on British TV. There will be a lot of people of a certain age who will remember some of the somewhat uncompromising stories of Sapphire And Steel with a lot of affection and they, especially, are the people who I would recommend this book to. It’s not as long or as meaty as an authorised, fully illustrated, coffee table book look back at the show might have been but, in case that never happens, then this is definitely one people familiar with some of the material here covered will want to check out. Thanks to my friend Dr. Rob for grabbing this one for me for my birthday.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Whirlpool



Whirly Gig!

Whirlpool (aka Perversion Flash)
Denmark/UK 1970 Directed by José Ramón Larraz
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B


Warning: Some spoilerage as to the end of the movie at the end of this review.

Whirlpool is one of a few films directed by José Ramón Larraz in the UK in the early 1970s, this one under the pseudonym J. R. Larrath. It’s also the first of three of his movies featured in the new Arrow Films Blood Hunger - The Film Of José Larraz boxed set which, just on the strength of this film alone (although its a wonderful set anyway) is worth purchasing before it goes completely out of print.

The film starts out as it goes on... fairly oppressively and without a huge amount of dialogue. A man out rowing a boat in a forest lake comes across a boot in his search which he seems to know more about than he should, if his body language is anything to go by. This whole opening credits section of him rowing the lake and then walking the forest is a nice set up but it also has some interesting and somewhat bizarre edits in it... which is not out of keeping with the rest of the film. For example, a long shot of this lead antagonist called Theo, played by a suitably bizarre looking individual called Karl Lanchbury, has an unexpected series of cuts on movement as he is walking... the POV darting around between long shot, medium shot and close up but from all the same angle as he walks through the densely textured wood.

Theo lives with his aunt, Sara, played by Pia Andersson. She also runs a photographer’s agency in London and when she visits her studio and sees new ‘just starting out and needing a career’ model Tulia, played by Vivian Neves, she offers her to stay at her house for a while so her nephew, who is a brilliant photographer, can take some shots of her and increase her chances of getting work.

However, this is not the first time that Auntie Sara and Theo, who is totally obsessed with his aunt, have done this kind of thing before. We know from early on that a former ‘visitor’,  Rhonda, played by Johanna Hegger, had a sexually charged ‘threesome’ relationship including Theo and his aunt before something ‘happened’ and necessitated the two of them to look for another girl to complete their ‘intimate games’. And, it’s a bit of a blast with loads of nudity and bisexual shenanigans but also permeated by both a thick atmosphere of dread and a somewhat dreamlike quality which never quite lets up.

It doesn’t take long for Sara and Theo to corrupt Tulia with their alcohol and wacky backy but Tulia is obsessed by the unseen presence created by the departure of Rhonda and there’s even a nice little dream sequence where Rhonda and Theo are having sex in his darkroom which is, of course, bathed in red for the duration, with the two characters literally making love in a ‘red light district’, so to speak. The scene ends with a double whammy as Tulia wakes up and is actually just pulled into another dream moment (I think, if I was reading the imagery right... or at least the aftermath of it).

And it’s an interesting film with various moving camera shots, some interesting compositions (especially in the interior shoots) and the odd Dutch angle or two thrown in for good measure. It slowly builds a picture of a mystery withheld... you know there’s something afoot when Tulia is forbidden to go into Theo’s darkroom (usually kept locked and with a door adorned with a poster for ‘Rasputin And His London Monks)... and an act of murder committed by, pretty much, the only male suspect in the film for any length of time. Things get even crazier when Tulia covertly enters Theo’s room and sees naked dolls nailed to the walls and, presumably, a wig and handbag belonging to the much missed Rhonda. And crazier still when Theo takes her and his drug dealer friend into the woods, where said friend rapes her and generally triggers her fight or flight reflex... although, once Theo drives the under dressed model back to the house after this distressing scene takes place, Tulia seems much more into having a threesome with Theo and his aunt, as much as she was in getting into Theo’s pants the night before, after a bizarrely long and protracted ‘strip poker’ sequence. So I wonder if the forest rape scene was improvised and then didn’t quite fit back into the final edit comfortably later because it’s not mentioned again. Although the reveal of the significance of a man playing a pipe would lend credence to the scene being in there from the beginning, to be fair.

It’s a film that feels oddly of its time while, simultaneously being somewhat out of step with those times but it’s all made watchable by the lurking sense that some kind of resolution is just around the corner.

There is, as I said, some nice cinematography too, with a shot of Tulia looks down stairs towards camera to where the darkroom would be, full of twisted shadows bouncing off the bannisters, giving it an almost Caligari feel to it. In the scene mentioned earlier, where she discover’s Theo’s room, everything is in deep shadows and mainly it’s just the girl and anything the director wants to highlight peaking out through the light in the shot... an almost colour film version of a chiaroscuro vision. Or how about a nice shot of Sara and Tulia’s naked bodies on a bed in repose shown in reflection on a small mirror on the wall to the right of the bed before the camera pans around towards the left of the scene to show us the same content from an alternate angle without cutting the shot.

There are also some terrible things too... such as some bizarrely awful timing where Theo repeatedly slaps Tulia around the face near the end of the movie but the two actors can’t get their timing right so every time he hits her on one side of her face, she throws her head into the slap rather than the recoil sending it the other way. I’m surprised the director left this shot in the movie, to be honest but, I guess these two really couldn’t get their physical performance together here. Also, there’s a piece of source music from the film’s composer, the always listenable Stelvio Cipriani, which is supposed to be background for an English pub but which is so psychedelic and out of place that the whole scene feels fake. Maybe if the director had buried it more and toned it down in the mix he might have got away with it but, as it is, it’s way too ‘in your face’ for the context required.

That being said, Cipriani’s score is, of course, one of the great things about the movie. Its mostly low key and often very sinister... which is in keeping with the astonishingly downright creepy look of the actor Karl Lanchbury. It’s got a kind of ‘dark baroque’ edge to the thing, sometimes punctuated by stabbing harpsichord and, in one sequence, what sounds like piano strings being scraped with something. There’s also a recurring music box jingle which sounds very similar to Ennio Morricone’s watch chimes from For A Few Dollars More dotted about the score. You get the feel that this is going to reveal a dark heart to the mystery and somehow be connected to the naked, children’s dolls which Tulia finds nailed to the wall but... this whole idea seems to peter out unanswered by the end of the movie. Cipirani’s score for this was released on CD by Digitmovies a number of years ago and is worth picking up.

The end of the movie is fairly strong, actually, with the thing that is being threatened to happen throughout the entire movie coming to pass which, in this case and given that the director sets up a chase scene at the eleventh hour, is quite surprising. It also dovetails onto a wonderful final, static shot of a photograph earlier in the film, where a shot of a character silently screaming is held for a while as a sort of comment on what you’ve just seen. The European cut of the movie, which is not included on this release as... with much apologies from Arrow (all they could find of it surviving was a very dodgy looking pan and scan VHS bootleg of the film)... had a ‘don’t worry, he won’t get away with it’ soundtrack of the police entering off screen and reassuring the audience but this would have really undercut the effectiveness of the ending here where, indeed, the villains of the piece really do get away with things.

Arrow’s new Blu Ray is a truly superb restoration and there’s a comparison featurette which shows you the difference in deleted shots and the order in which certain scenes play out differently between the pristine, US cut transferred for this release and the dodgy, bootleg version of the European cut which shows exactly why they didn’t try and release this version. Other extras include a great little interview with Kim Newman about the early British films of Larraz as well as a commentary by Tim Lucas (which I haven’t got around to listening to yet). There’s also a 1972 interview from Michael Parkinson’s old interview show with Vivian Neves which kind of concentrates on questions about her status as an adult model and taking her clothes off which, frankly, is quite uncomfortable to watch now but it would have been perfectly acceptable and run of the mill for audiences like myself at the time.

And that’s all I have to say, at present, about Arrow’s stonkingly good presentation of Whirlpool... other than I really enjoyed the film and the dreamlike atmosphere it creates. The Blood Hunger boxed set is definitely one to get your hands on if you are interested in these quite obscure gems from the early 1970s and I’m looking forward to exploring the other two films in the set sometime soon.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Godzilla - King Of The Monsters



Ghidorah, Mon Amour

Godzilla - King Of The Monsters
USA/Japan 2019 Directed by Michael Dougherty
UK cinema release print.

Okay, so Godzilla - King Of The Monsters is the third in an predominantly American made series of new ‘Monsterverse’ films based on the various Toho Kaiju Eiga such as the Godzilla films. The first of these was Godzilla (reviewed by me here) and the second being the much better Kong - Skull Island (reviewed by me here). Now the fourth entry in this series, due next year, will be Godzilla Versus King Kong which brings me to ask... why have so many of these films got titles ripped from older movies utilising the same characters.

This film is particularly problematic in this aspect since Godzilla - King Of The Monsters was the title for the American release print of the 1954 film, Godzilla (aka Gojira) which started it all. You know, the one where a lot of it was cut, Raymond Burr was added into the linking scenes and Akira Ifikube’s masterful score was mostly replaced with old Universal monster movie cues tracked in. So, yeah, this particular title evokes some bad memories and associations at best.

However, while I can see exactly why many of the critics are giving this one fairly negative reviews, it’s actually far superior to the 2014 Godzilla movie and I enjoyed this one a lot.

There are four main monster characters in this one plus, or so we are told, some new ones. There is The Big G himself, of course, in what I suspect is a slight redesign that does the character absolute no favours. He pretty much looks like a mean thug in this... just the kind of giant, fire breathing reptile monster you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alleyway on your way home from work one night (as opposed to the more friendly and convivial giant reptiles you might wish to pass on the street). Which could have worked really well for the character if he was, as he was in a few of the early Toho films, being portrayed as a villainous force of nature that needed to be stopped. However, it’s made abundantly clear from the story here that he is definitely being seen as the heroic saviour of mankind so the extra mean look didn’t really work all that well for me, it has to be said. Just a pair of googly eyes would have done the trick.

We also have three more ‘fan favourites’...

We have Rodan, who starred in his own films as well as crossing over with the Gojira movies back in the 1970s and probably later. We also have everybody’s favourite larva turns giant moth creature Mothra, who is also seen as one of the ‘hero kaiju’ in this (as she pretty much always is whenever she’s in the movies, it has to be said). Lastly we have the kaiju who I always think of as Godzilla’s arch enemy, the three headed dragon-like creature Ghidorah (or King Ghidorah as he used to be known). It’s actually the best of the Ghidorah’s I’ve seen in the way the various heads of the creature interact with each other and, as far as I’m concerned, even though he’s the lead non-human villain of the piece, he’s also the best of the monsters in the movie. In a nice touch, the less clued in audience members (as far as the history of the genre goes) don’t find out Ghidorah’s name until much later in the movie. Instead, the humans have designated him Monster Zero, in a nice touch to the history of the character and his designation in his second appearance back in Invasion Of The Astro Monster (aka Godzilla Vs Monster Zero).

In addition to these, I’m pretty sure I spotted Kumonga a couple of times but it wasn’t shouted out to the audience like the others were.

And its a really fun film with some nice twists and turns to the characters and all the human story built around the monsters, in structure at least, is really well done and gives the film a certain lift absent from the previous US attempts to bring the Godzilla character to life. That being said, the human element of the story is also where the film fails in some regards. By that I mean...

Well, like the two predecessors, the film is cast with some major A list actors who always do a fantastic job with the material they are given to work with. I mean we have Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe (reprising his role as the modern version of Dr. Ishiro Serizawa), Ziyi Zhang, Sally Hawkins (back as Dr. Vivienne Graham), Charles Dance as the human villain of the piece (or one of them... don’t want to get into spoiler territory here) and David Strathairn (back again as Admiral William Stenz). These are all fantastic actors and they all do a hell of a job with the dialogue they are given. Which is the main problem, I think, if any were to be found in such an entertaining confection as this. The dialogue is truly atrocious and the phrase ‘trying to get a silk purse from a sow’s ear’ comes to mind. Some of this dialogue is just embarrassing, even when it’s not trying to jargon the ears to death with its fictional, scientific gibberish.

Coupled with that is some unusually stylised acting from pretty much all the players. Every eyebrow twitch or look or head movement seems to be directed to the camera with the express intention of underlying and punctuating every dramatic moment to the nth degree. It’s like the director was saying... “More gravitas. More weight. Less subtle... give me moooore!” all the way through. Seriously, just between Chandler, Watanabe and Hawkins we have more chin and brow action than you’d get on an episode of Battle Of The Planets (aka Gatchaman). I was sitting there in the audience thinking I was stuck in some kind of artificial ‘gravitas well’. It might be that this style of acting is more appreciated in Japan, one of the primary targets for these films I suspect but... all I’m saying is that, as great as these performers are, they all looked like they were trying to get away with understating, as far as possible, some really broad strokes in terms of their physical presence and... well, it’s certainly something that stands out.

However, for all this, the film still manages to be immensely superior to some of the other Godzilla movies over the years and, frankly, there are some really nice references to the history of Kaiju Eiga productions for the ‘old school’ days... such as the use of the ‘oxygen destroyer’, featured in a few of the movies including Gojira’s 1954 debut. Heck, there’s even a revelation that one of the main characters is descended from the characters played by The Peanuts in the original Mothra movies... which is a really nice touch. There are also a fair few references to Skull Island and the history of the organisation Monarch, which is being established.

An inconsistency with the previous two movies is that this one doesn’t have a similar opening title sequence as those two, utilising real and fake news coverage. However, this one does use this device over the end credits to help set up the coming Godzilla Vs King Kong movie so at least there is some brand consistency here. And, by the way, you might want to stay until the end of the credits for another scene that might be important in a future movie in the franchise.

The cherry on top of this film is the new score by Bear McCreary. I’ve been saying how good this composer is for years now (since the modern Battlestar Galactica TV show which he scored) and he really delivers the goods here, utilising not just his own music which perfectly matches the mood of the film but also bringing in some new versions of the Ifikube scores with the two main themes you might associate with Godzilla plus the Mothra main theme (alas, the Mothra lyrics don’t make an appearance here). The score is brilliant and... mixed way too low during the action scenes so, yep, waiting for the double CD to turn up from Amazon any day now. Can’t wait to hear this one away from the visuals.

And there’s not much more ‘spoiler free’ stuff to say about Godzilla - King Of The Monsters, I think. Some good acting (despite the script obstacles to it), some great action, a nice story idea and, alas, the death of my two favourite human characters... one in the first third of the movie and another during the inevitable act of heroic redemption at the end. Definitely a film to watch if you liked the previous two and are a fan of the genre in general. Despite bad reviews for this, which are mostly unwarranted, I think we have a remarkably ‘on the right track for once’ American look at the title character and I am really looking forward, now, to next year’s monster smack down.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Frankenstein



Strickfadenmageddon!

Frankenstein
USA 1931 Directed by James Whale
Universal Blu Ray Zone B


Okay so... next up on my Universal Horror rewatch list is James Whale’s Frankenstein, which would eclipse even Tod Browning’s Dracula from the same year and re-enforce the idea that these brand new motion picture spectacles focusing on the, as yet unnamed, genre of ‘horror’ can really bring in a lot of box office take for the studio. So this one was rushed into production with Robert Florey originally scheduled to direct, along with new Dracula star Bela Lugosi as the monster. After some twenty minutes of, sadly lost, test footage of Lugosi in a quite different make up as the monster, the actor turned the job down which, considering what shape the script was in at the time, wasn’t necessarily something you can blame him for but it was certainly a missed opportunity and rocketed Boris Karloff to fame when the final choice of director for the film, James Whale, was brought in and spotted Karloff in the canteen.

After some gruelling evenings of various make up tests with studio monster make up genius Jack Pearce, Karloff was ready. One of Karloff’s contributions to the make-up came by way of a dental bridge in one of his cheeks, which he was able to take out to leave a hollowed out side to his face, something which Pearce accentuated with his brushes. That being said... the haunting make up from this film never looked the same on Karloff in the sequels and one of the contributing factors to that is that, due to his new found fame, popularity and success that this role and others subsequently brought him (in his mid 40s, after already having made over 80 films in Hollywood in minor roles), he was able to afford to get his teeth fixed up properly and so he couldn’t repeat the same trick twice for his subsequent roles as the monster in The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) and Son Of Frankenstein (1939). Indeed, Karloff’s name wasn’t even included in the opening credits of the first movie as he was just left with a question mark where his name should be as “The Monster........?”, just as Elsa Lanchester would have the same treatment in the opening credits of the first sequel. His name was, however, obviously restored for the end credits... ‘a good cast is worth repeating’ as Universal pictures of that period often used to say at the end. Although the typeface they chose for certain words here use these terrible, sideways versions of the letter ‘s’ which I can never get used to.

The film begins with a mirror of something from another film which people haven’t been able to see for about 88 years and which is now deemed lost to time, alas. I’m talking about the lost footage from the 1931 film Dracula (which I reviewed here) in which Edward Van Sloan, who played Van Helsing, came out and gave little monologue to calm the audience down after the picture had finished. It’s a shame that this footage that has never turned up since the first release but Whale, or his studio bosses, chose to open Frankenstein in exactly the same way. This gives it some continuity in terms of Universal trying to create some horror branding in a way... although they possibly didn’t know it yet. So we once more have Edward Van Sloan, who plays Dr. Waldman in this production, come out from behind some curtains and do a little pre-credits speech to warn the ‘faint of heart’ and sensitive souls in the audience of what they are about to see. Of course, by now and after the roaring success of Dracula, this is as much about showmanship as it is about anything else but it’s a nice moment before we go into some opening titles (where Mary Shelley is billed, unbelievably, as Mrs. Percy B. Shelley) and the film starts proper.

The film opens with the end of a funeral with Henry Frankenstein (not Victor as in the original novel) played by Colin Clive and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz played by Dwight Frye, who was so brilliant as Renfield in Dracula, looking on from behind cover and ready to rob the grave in the aftermath for Henry’s experiments. Clive was, in fact, a direct descendent of Clive of India and even acted in a film four years later about his ancestor although, bizarrely, Ronald Coleman actually played the famous Clive. Colin Clive, however, had his own problems and struggled with alcoholism which would lead to complications and help kill him just six years after he filmed Frankenstein (and two years after he reprised his role for the sequel).

Once the mourners are gone we have Frankenstein and Fritz digging up the body and the whole sequence from the funeral to the finish of the scene is a strangely long and protracted affair, taking time to build the atmosphere over many minutes where the later Universal Horrors of the 1940s, which were admittedly more B movies, were as likely to do this kind of set up with visual shorthand. Thanks to film historian Rudy Behlmer on one of the wonderful commentary tracks provided on this latet Blu Ray Legacy Edition (the other is by Sir Christopher Frayling) for pointing out that, with a statue of death present in the background, we have Henry Frankenstein literally shovelling the soil from the grave (amplified with a microphone hidden below) and, literally, throwing dirt in the face of death, via this tombstone statue. It’s a nice comment on Frankenstein’s target of facing down death and bringing life, albeit in monstrous fashion, into the world and, given the placing of the statue and the obvious choice to literally fling the dirt in this particular direction, I think it’s more than likely that Whale or one of the actors probably introduced this concept on the day of shooting and were more than aware of this visual metaphor they were creating.

Following this scene, as Frankenstein and Fritz are wheeling the corpse home, they come across an executed man (or dummy) on a gibbet and Fritz is told to cut him down to add to the good professor’s stock of cadavers and Frye deliberately plays Fritz as nervous and jumpy in the face of all things to do with death... presumably so that in one of the following sequences, when he drops the jar containing the ‘normal brain’, we believe he really is startled and jumping at his own shadow as a bumping sound causes him to lose grip on the jar.

So we come to that scene and here we meet, for the second time, Edward Van Sloan teaching students in his medical college about human biology and specifically about the difference between a ‘normal’ and ‘criminal’ brain and, this is exactly how his jars containing the two brains are, hilariously, labelled up... ‘Normal Brain’ and ‘Criminal Brain’. After the class has finished, Fritz goes down to take the ‘Normal Brain’ but is startled, smashes it and instead absconds with the ‘Criminal Brain’ as a replacement... thus robbing the obvious innocence of the resulting creature and rendering his actions somewhat more fateful in the final analysis. It should perhaps be pointed out that this scene was not in the original novel and neither was Fritz, who was a character invented for some of the many stage versions of the play, one of which this film, like Dracula before it, was based on as opposed to the first version of the source material. That being said, and again thanks to Behlmer for this piece of info, the distinction between the ‘normal’ and ‘criminal’ brain is not made in the stage plays and is therefore a completely new invention for the film. Which is kind of interesting, I think, given its implications.

Okay, so after this we meet Mae Clark as the future Mrs. Frankenstein and her bizarre love triangle person Victor, played by John Boles, a relationship which is almost completely forgotten about for most of the rest of the movie (there’s a reason for this, I suspect and I’ll get back to it later). They decide, along with Frankenstein’s father played by Frederick Kerr and Edward Van Sloan as young Frankenstein’s former teacher, to go out to Henry’s forbidden lab which Baron Frankenstein, Henry’s father, refers to as being in a windmill. This is kinda interesting because it’s not.. its a big watchtower but it was originally meant to have been a windmill and, when the monster ‘returns home’ with Henry at the end of the movie, it is actually to a windmill. So this was possibly overlooked and left in the script at this point in the filming. It’s also mentioned about Henry Frankenstein’s “insane desire to create life” and it says something, I think, about him and the long line of ‘creation mad’ scientists who came after him because, as I always say, they could have a lot more fun creating life in the old fashioned way.

So the various sets in the watchtower look, to me, like they were recycled from Dracula, including the big staircase that Dracula flung Renfield down at the end and, I think, must have been used and recycled from production to production a lot at Universal. As were the wonderful electric gizmos invented by electrician/hobbyist/tinkerer Kenneth Strickfaden, who would build these things as a hobby and, before he knew it, was doing a lucrative business hiring them out to organisations like Universal for their ‘crazy and sparkly lab equipment’ sets. Certainly they are reused, probably along with half the sets, in the Flash Gordon serials which I so love and cherish. The watchtower interiors also seem to have learned somewhat of a lesson from German Expressionism too, with distorted angles to windows and walls and twisted shadows drawn in with light. It doesn’t get to ‘the full Caligari’ as it were in terms of dominating the screen like it does, quite wonderfully, in Son Of Frankenstein in 1939 but... there’s more than a suggestion of it here and it surely works well to building the almost gothic atmosphere of some of the scenes.

During the creation scene we have lines like “Now I know what it feels like to be God” which were cut in some states and completely removed on later re-releases by the more organised censorship board due to being blasphemous. I'll get onto a consequence of one of the cuts made to this film a little later on.

Karloff’s cadaver, which reanimates at the end of the sequence, has a bandaged up head so the audience are unable to see what the creature looks like yet. When he does enter in another scene shortly after, it’s a really unusual entrance and, though it possibly looks a little clunky by today's standards, it must have been something in terms of an audience in 1931 watching it without having seen much in this newly created genre in the ‘talkies’ before. We hear the sound of Karloff’s footsteps and then cut to a shot of the door frame with Karloff pushing open the door as he walks in backwards. He then slowly turns to camera and we finally get a look at that iconic make-up. Then we have two closer shots of his face cut together in quick succession, getting closer and really putting that visage ‘in the face’ of the audience. And the film is full of interesting staging and editing like this. For example, in an earlier scene where Henry asks his three guests if they really want to go into his laboratory, instead of a long shot of them responding, we get three separate close ups of each one looking to the right of the camera and nodding. A very long and drawn out way of doing things which I don’t think you’d catch being done in the same way nowadays.

Okay so I’m not going through the whole movie blow by blow here and you probably almost certainly know the story but there are some nice shot set ups and ways of doing things like the above dotted throughout the movie. Whale’s fondness for dollying from one room to the next via a cutaway section is in evidence at certain points and there’s a wonderful 'two shot' where Karloff is chasing Frankenstein around the rotating inner mechanism of the windmill and you see both of the actors framed in the little rotating rectangles made by the path of said mechanism, one after the other... almost like the director was trying to remind us of the look of an old Zoetrope.

The chase scenes at the end, around mountains which are definitely shot in an interior set, are both magnificent looking but, alas, also unfortunate in that the cyclorama which depicts the clouds in the sky has a lot of wrinkles on it and these are very noticeable... as if the sky was just wallpaper stuck on and it had dried out and started to peel. Which it kinda was, I guess. Of course, various high definition DVDs and now this Blu Ray have made that more apparent to viewers as the years go on and as our technology gets, in some ways, more refined. Still, if you like the film enough I’m sure you can turn a blind eye to this kind of thing.

What the censors for the subsequent re-release versions a few years later couldn’t turn a blind eye too... in addition to the religious iconigraphy and the blasphemy mentioned earlier, was the shot of Frankenstein’s monster running out of daisies to throw in the lake... so he innocently picks up the young girl he’s playing with and throws her in, accidentally drowning her. And this is a nice thing to show just how stupid censorship is because, sometimes, what you cut out makes things worse. I’ve mentioned this before about when they used to slice out the protracted eye gouging scene in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (reviewed here) in this country. It’s such a rubbish effect that when you see the splinter of wood slowly poke the eye out, it really doesn’t look real but, when the actual special effect is cut out, what you imagine is much worse than the actual reality. Well the same thing happened with Frankenstein. When the little girl’s demise is cut after the daisy throwing scene and she turns up shown dead later, what the audience imagines could have happened to her is far worse and, of course, is something else which takes away from the childish naivete of the central creature. Did he rape her? Strangle her? What happened? Thankfully we now have a fully restored print of the movie we can enjoy at home.

And that’s about all I have to say about Frankenstein other than, perhaps, two more quick points...

One, that secondary love interest. It’s made even more apparent when Henry leaves his fiance in the ‘care’ of her friend Victor. Frankenstein was meant to die but the studio changed their mind later and an epilogue was shot with a stand in for Colin Clive who is glimpsed in the next room recovering from his wounds. So that’s this additional Victor character done with and he doesn’t turn up, as far as I remember, even once in the sequel.

The other thing I wanted to say was that, when I said Karloff’s make-up was iconic... I meant just that. There were three previous movie productions of the story before this but it’s this one with Karloff in Jack Pearce’s make-up that is the most imitated and best remembered... it’s influence is beyond measure but, think about what the first thing that comes into your head when you hear the name Frankenstein (who was, indeed, named after his creator in the stage version on which this was based). It’s something you don’t forget and also, although the creature was fully articulate in speech in the original novel, it wasn’t until the second movie that the creature got some, basic, speech and intellect shown. Something which was jettisoned again by the time of the next film.

Frankenstein, like the unforgettable monster with its exaggerated walk (half created by built up boots and boards incapacitating joints), is a classic of its kind and if you’ve never seen this movie and some of its sequels then you are missing out. Personally, I think the next two films in the series are even better than this one but it doesn’t diminish the sheer brilliance of this first film and if you’ve not imbibed you should maybe take a look. There’s a reason why we’re all still talking about these classic Universal monsters after all this time.